In the near present, a woman whose marriage is crumbling lifts a tiny sky-blue vial from the bank of the Thames River.
In 1791, a 12-year-old girl who has helped commit a murder fills that vial with a potion she hopes will change her life.
What links them, besides that bit of blue glass, is the subject of The Lost Apothecary, a debut novel by Sarah Penner, who lives in St. Petersburg.
The book’s two story lines are separated by more than two centuries, but both of them center on women trying to control their own lives. It begins in the past, in the tiny apothecary shop run by Nella Clavinger, on a narrow London street called Back Alley.
Nella inherited the business from her mother, who taught her everything she knows about using herbs, roots, even insects to concoct tinctures and powders that can treat all sorts of ailments. Nella’s mother was a healer, and she specialized in treating women.
Since her mother’s death, though, Nella has taken the business in a different direction. In a scrupulously kept account book, she tells us, she records secrets: “Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever.... These were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thornapple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.”
Why Nella began selling poison, and why she only sells it for use on men, is one of the book’s pivotal secrets. Now middle aged and in failing health, Nella will confess it finally to the other person who voices the historical narrative, Eliza Fanning.
They meet when Eliza, a country girl come to London for a job as a housemaid, is sent to Nella by her mistress. Mrs. Amwell has been kind to Eliza, even taught her to read and write. Mr. Amwell, however, is another story. His wife pays Nella for a pair of poisoned eggs, but it’s Eliza who, following Nella’s instructions, cooks and serves them.
You might expect a young girl to be horrified by such events. Not Eliza — indeed, she wants Nella to take her on as an apprentice. But when another customer’s order goes terribly awry, Nella and Eliza will be plunged into danger.
In contemporary London, Caroline Parcewell arrives from the United States for what was supposed to be her 10th anniversary trip with her husband, James. But Caroline arrives alone after discovering that James is having an affair. She’s shocked and shattered — they had only recently started trying to have a baby, and she thought their relationship was stable, if a tad boring.
At loose ends, she takes up an offer from a man who’s recruiting people on the street for a mudlarking tour of the banks of the Thames. Mudlarking is a kind of riverine amateur archaeology, a popular pursuit in London, where the Thames has flowed through a huge, populous city for centuries, carrying with it all sorts of artifacts and depositing them randomly on its banks.
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Caroline gets lucky almost immediately, spotting a tiny blue vial marked with the outline of a bear. A decade before, she abandoned a plan to apply for a graduate course in history at Cambridge University because James had a good job in Ohio. She thinks she doesn’t regret it, but that vial sparks something.
The tour guide sends her to his daughter Gaynor, who happens to work in the venerable British Library, and soon the two of them are searching old records, maps and newspaper articles trying to find the bottle’s provenance. Caroline is having a good time in London after all, until James shows up at her hotel room door.
Dual narratives don’t always work — I often find myself much more interested in one and rushing through the other. But Penner keeps both parts of The Lost Apothecary engrossing, with rich detail, assured pacing and effective suspense.
Much separates the lives of Nella and Eliza from Caroline’s world, but there are things they share, and not just betrayal by men. All three are driven by a thirst for knowledge and by a desire for independence. Even Nella, whose urge to control events in her own life took such a dire turn, sees her calling as a way to give women agency at a time when they had almost none. Thanks to a little bottle on a riverbank, Caroline might bring their stories to light centuries later.
The Lost Apothecary
By Sarah Penner
Park Row Books, 320 pages, $27.99
Sarah Penner will discuss The Lost Apothecary with the Oxford Exchange’s Fiction, Fantasies & Epics Book Club at 6:30 p.m. March 30. The virtual event is free; register at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.